Working Pictures: The Shape of Evil

Great pictures work because they are designed to work. They don’t just happen by luck or by accident. In this Working Pictures series, elements and decisions of picture design are closely examined to better understand how images are made to “work.” 


Case in Point: Four Caricatures of Adolf Hitler


Caricature is an art of exaggeration and recognition. But it’s more than just the look of the subject that a caricaturist manipulates, it’s the perception too


Consider these caricatures of Adolf Hitler, admittedly one of the easiest subjects to draw. He can be reduced to the barest essentials and yet recognition remains. The British illustrator Gerald Scarfe compares his caricaturing method to pulling a piece of chewing gum from both ends. He pulls as far as he can until the connection, or recognition, is about to snap. 
Illustrations by Hanok Piven (The Atlantic Monthly), Richard Maguire (NY Times Book Review), Vanderlaan (Conserve Material) and Unknown (Schtonk!).


What’s remarkable about these Hitler caricatures is how similar they are, yet how different. How-to-caricature books always instruct beginners to look for the shape of the face when starting a caricature. If you can find the right shape, they say, then you are well on your way to creating a great likeness. But with these Hitlers, each artist chose a very different, simple shape for the face and yet each succeeds his own way. Sure, putting that distinctive mustache on any shape might get you close to building a likeness of the Fuhrer, but it’s the other elements of the pictures that I find so interesting and so effective in evoking the character. These artists made other choices that made the pictures “work.”


Wisely-chosen concepts wedded to artful images make for memorable and effective pictures. The communication success of an image is the result of the decisions made regarding these factors.   


1. Concept
-In the case of these illustrations, the concept is not delivered through content, but through form. What the artist focuses on, is how we see this character rather than what he’s doing. All of the artists designed a picture of a bad guy, with the most direct and appropriate pictorial elements. 


2. Color
-All four of the images feature the same limited palette: black, white and red; the colors of the Nazi flag. Not only are these colors historically appropriate, but they’re visually powerful too. Red of course, is the most arresting color (think: stop signs and blood). White and black work well as colors for the subject’s face and hair but also provide a stark color combination.


3. Composition
-Notice that all of these images are confrontational, in-your-face close-ups. There is no safe distance between Hitler and you, the viewer. He fills the screen, with no way around him, and no depth behind him. The images are stiff, stern and non-moving.
Equally important, these images are all designed with a strong diagonal that slashes across the picture. Each artist takes advantage of Hitlers unruly bangs to use the most unsettling of all lines, the dreaded diagonal.


These are just a few of the elements that make this picture work. Future “Working Pictures” entries will explore successful pictures and their reasons for being so. 


 Further Observation
This is an advertisement for a German hat shop. Unsurprisingly, it was very controversial. It’s fun to see what little difference there is between these two characters, Hitler and Charlie Chaplin, when they’re reduced to the bare essentials of recognition.
Most important for the topic at hand: check out the differences between this image and the ones above. The inference of evil is toned down, by design. The colors are neutral, no red. Also, the forehead’s diagonal is softened here, far less of a slash across the face or the page. The faces are smaller on the page too, giving some distance between us and the subjects. The image is designed as a cool, quiet joke and that’s exactly why it was controversial. Hitler is no joke. 


“Is not the caricaturist’s task exactly the same as that of the classical artist? Both see lasting truth behind the surface of mere outward appearance. A good caricature, like every work of art, is more true to life than reality itself.” -Annibale Carracci, artist (1550-1609)

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